You got your N8, C7 or C6-01, the latest, the greatest from Finland. You were promised the moon, and in some aspects you’re damn sure getting the moon, but in others, it feels like you’re drilling a hole to the center of the earth, struggling to get by on day-to-day use with your new phone. You glance across the room to your friends with their fancy iPhones and HTCs and Samsungs and Nexus that “just work”, and you wish you had given up the first class camera and video, the amazing Ovi Maps, the top-class build quality, and gone with the flow. After all, everyone is convinced Symbian is yesterday’s story.
I have been an iOS user for over a year, an Android user for almost a month, and trust me, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Symbian. It needs some polishing, some developers. Honestly, there’s almost nothing you can’t do on Symbian once you know the drill. And here’s the drill.
1. Check your firmware
There’s nothing like running an old buggy firmware on your phone because you’re scared it would require a PhD in geeky’ness to update it. Luckily, wireless over-the-air updates are now a common thing, just dial *#0000# from your phone, wait for the Device Updates page to pop up, and click Options, Check for Updates. If there’s one, install it. It’s usually a 3-7Mb file and it will install by itself, while preserving your data. If there isn’t one, make a mental note to check it every couple of weeks.
2. Sexify Symbian
Nothing beats looking at a fresh phone, and out of the box, well, Symbian is boring, like my-2-year-old-neighbor-can-do-better-designs boring. Here are two addresses you should remember: IND190 and PiZero, there are others as well. These two geniuses make the sexiest Symbian themes out there. I’m personally super fond of the WARNA theme series by IND190. The blue one just screams from the AMOLED screen. Other personally recommended themes are Strike by IND190, Winter Night by Pizero, GreenLights by Babi.
GreenLights by Babi
Another tip if you want a snappy phone, would be to lose the third homescreen. Yes, Symbian’s widgetized homescreen is limited as is, but honestly, come to think of it, you won’t need more than 10 widgets over all, especially if you decide to use a lot of shortcut bars like I do. The others are just there to fill the space. Just go to the third homescreen and click Options, Delete Home Screen. Now that you’re on a 2-home setup, you can switch back and forth super easily, and everything is only one click away, instead of sometimes one, sometimes two.
My 2 Symbian homescreens with WARNA biru as a theme.
If you want to go the extra mile in insuring a different experience, why not go for SPB Mobile Shell, it brings two homescreen setups with up to 5 homescreens on each, and tons of new widgets like connectivity, birthdays, weather, and even modifies your task switcher and menu look. Overall, it’s like slipping a new coat of paint onto your phone and it’s worth testing just for that.
3. Automate everything
I have been championing automation for years now: it’s the way your phone adapts to different situations, for example, goes into Silent or Offline mode at night, or opens Bluetooth and the Music Player when you’re driving. Right now, Symbian is the only OS with an option for “smart” automation, but “dumb” automation is also available with more options.
“Smart” automation is brought by Nokia Bots, a betalabs widgets application that sits in the background and intelligently suggest profile switches for you, alarm times, monitors battery usage, and provides you with your most frequently contacted persons and opened applications, without you doing a thing except approving its suggestions.
“Dumb” automation can be done with either Nokia Situations, another betalabs solution, or the commercial Best Profiles application. You will have to teach each of these applications what to change and following what contexts, but the possibilities of making your phone doing the heavy lifting for you in the background are unlimited and super enjoyable. For some examples, check this post I wrote about the different settings for Best Profiles.
4. Forget about the built-in Browser, use Opera Mobile or Mini
There was a time in 2007-2008 when we championed the Symbian browser for being able to handle Flash. It still does, but it has fallen flat on its back. It’s slow, clunky, and for heaven’s sake still doesn’t fully support multiple tabs. An update is due with the new firmware, but color me skeptical until I’m sure it works.
Opera‘s main advantage is the home dial that lets you visually bookmark 9 pages, multiple tab browsing, and Opera Link which keeps your favorites, bookmarks and history sync’ed across several devices (computer, iOS, Android…). It’s also fast and uses much less data than the default browser. Opera Mini is the lightweight champion: it does all the processing on its servers and brings you the webpage with the least possible data usage. Opera Mobile can do that, or download the page in a regular way.
5. The built-in Email is useless (sorry), get Mobile Documents
If you’re one of the three persons in the world for whom the built-in Email works, skip this step. If you’re one of the legions for whom the Gmail integration blows, who stare at their phone for hours wondering if there’s really no email or if it’s not even sync’ing, who delete an email only to log into their email account on their computer later and see it still there two times out of three, then there’s a solution for you: Mobile Documents.
Arguably, the folks behind this, Visiarc, totally missed the boat on a decent name, but Mobile Documents isn’t just a “documents” solution, it’s a full-blown email client and it works wonders. Wonders, I tell you. About three months ago, I switched to Mobile Documents and I’ve been a happy camper since. It’s not a push solution, but you can configure it to check for emails every 5 minutes which is the nearest thing to push you will ever find. It handles email deletion, sending, marking, starring, as it should. It integrates well with attachments, especially PDF ones. Mobile Documents also recently added notifications for new mails into the default email widget, as well as multitouch for document viewing: absolute win.
6. Social-who? Do yourself a favor and get Gravity
I’m pretty sure you can spot a trend here. Everything built-in on Symbian^3 is almost a nightmare to use, and there’s always a third-party solution that trumps it fair and square. This couldn’t be more true than for Social and Gravity. You can see Social on your phone, right? That white thing that takes decades to scroll and update Facebook and Twitter? Do yourself a favor, remove its widget from the homescreen, create a Junk folder in your menu, put Social in it (and Web, Mail, Ovi Sync), and don’t ever open that folder again. EVER.
You paid hundreds of bucks for your phone, spare the added 10$ and buy Gravity. You will thank me day in and day out for that. It works. Really truly beautifully works. The latest Gravity alpha, supports everything you need on Twitter and has finally improved the Facebook part so you can use it efficiently.
If you don’t need that much options, there are alternatives like TwimGo, TweetS60 and Nimbuzz for Twitter, and going to m.facebook.com on Opera for Facebook. But really, at least download the 10-day trial of Gravity and give it a go
7. Get Swype, even if you don’t swipe
The Symbian^3 keyboard is anything but an enjoyable experience, missed letters, hassle to insert symbols and numbers while typing, pitiful predictive input. If you don’t like it, download Swype. Swype is well-known on Android as it brought a new way to input words by simply swiping over the letters, without lifting your finger. You can read all about how to use it here, and download additional language packs here.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the swiping, but I found the Swype keyboard much more enjoyable than the default Symbian one. At least you can insert numbers and symbols by long pressing on keys, instead of switching to the Symbol layout. So even if you don’t want to “swipe”, install it and use it as a letter-by-letter keyboard, it just has a much better layout than the default one.
8. Upgrade Ovi Maps to 3.06
Arguably one of the two Ovi services that make sense (Store being the second one), Ovi Maps is a major win, the 3.06 version even more so. It supports multitouch, better search for POI, and finally lets you download full country maps from the application, without bothering with MapLoader on your computer. Get it now, thank me later.
9. Forget about Ovi Sync, sync with Google instead
Gone are the days of having your contacts stranded to one phone or SIM card, and worrying about transferring them over. Sure, Ovi Sync can solve the issue for you, but I’ve read so many reports of vanishing contacts and duplicates that I would never trust one contact to it. On the other end of the spectrum, Google Contacts is an amazing solution that works with several platforms, and is a nobrainer to use.
I haven’t personally tested this yet, as I have a *very* specific Contact sync’ing setup between Google, iSync on my Mac, Symbian, Android and iOS, which I’m not willing to tempt the devil with. But several users have tried and confirmed this method to be working. Just follow Vaibhav’s step-by-step guide and you should have your contacts sync’ed with Google.
10. Fill it with apps
A lot of people will critique Symbian for not having as much software as other platforms, but the must-haves are there, between the Ovi Store and some external sources wizardry:
- WhatsApp: I call it BBM for the masses, or the bastard child of a one-night-stand between IM and SMS. The new version linked here adds many functions, amongst which the option to use WiFi in top priority then your Cellular Data connection.
- Nimbuzz: IM your Hotmail, Google Talk, Yahoo, Facebook,… friends from one application.
- Socially: an application that links your Contacts with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, lets you update these networks, follow friends and more.
- Battery Monitor: The 7-bar battery icon is most of the time useless. Battery Monitor gives you more details regarding your battery & charging status, tells you what apps are using your power, and has a homescreen widget.
- Pixelpipe: It’s image, video and audio sharing pushed to the max. Upload your media to any online service you can think of.
- SoundHound: For me, SoundHound is Shazam on steroids, it supports not only putting your phone next to a speaker to guess the song, but also humming or singing it. It will also find you videos, lyrics, artist information for any song you tag.
- Nokia Panorama: Nokia phones are great at photography and Panorama just makes sense. It will stitch pictures together, automatically, for amazing panoramic photos.
- Dropbox: although a Dropbox application isn’t yet available, Asri Al Baker found the closest thing to it, an integrated Dropbox in your File Manager. Follow his tutorial and you will never miss having a dedicated Dropbox app.
- Upcode: Android brought barcodes back to life, and Upcode is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to scan them on Symbian.
- Evernote: although released for the N97, this Evernote widget will work on any recent Symbian device. Text, images, audio, all your notes are accessible and sync’ed.
- WordPress: if you maintain a WordPress blog, this is the must have utility for you, and it’s being updated quite frequently here.
- Nokia Big Screen: recently released as a beta, this application lets you transform your HDMI-Out enabled phone into a fully capable media center. Dazzle your friends and family.
- GAMEEEEEZZZZ! Your best source is the Ovi Store, many games are available for free for Symbian^3 phones, like Need For Speed Shift HD, RollerCoaster Extreme, Galaxy On Fire, as well as paid games like the blockbuster Angry Birds.
As I said in the beginning, having tested several mobile OS, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Symbian. There’s a lot of wrong in the way Symbian is presented to you out of the box, with the ugly homescreens, slow Email and Social, useless Web browser and keyboard. But the fact remains that Symbian is totally configurable, so if you don’t like the way certain things work, an alternative is a mere download away. And once you figure out these quirks, you end up with a fast stable device that works like it’s intended to, has everything you need, does imaging and multimedia and voice navigation like no other, and can survive a couple of falls onto asphalt and concrete.
Do you have any other tips to add to make Symbian a wonderful experience? Share away in the comments.